What Is A Service Dog, Really?

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

I want to start with a huge Disclaimer - I don't recommend Azawakh as a breed for service dog work. Typically, they are too environmentally aware and often too reactive to do the job effectively.



Anubi tucked relatively nicely in a crowded line on the way back from Florida

Anubi is my service dog. I don't look like I have a life altering disability, but I do. I have a life threatening nut allergen, one that is triggered even by aerosolized nut oil particles. Anubi's job is to alert me to those odors before my allergens are triggered so that I can leave the area. Over time he has also developed natural alerts to my migraines.



Now, what is a Service Dog (SD)?

A Service Dog is a dog that has been highly trained in tasks to mitigate their handler/owner's majorly life altering disabilities. There is so much confusion around how Service Dogs work I want to go over some of them. Please remember that one dog can perform a variety of tasks for instance they are primarily a mobility dog that does some psych work, etc.

  • There are many different types of Service Dogs. Most people tend to think of Guide Dogs and the like, not realizing how many different ways dogs can mitigate peoples disabilities. Some of these include:

  1. Guide- dogs guide sight impaired individuals to help them navigate their life safely. Tasks include- keeping them centered on the side walk, guiding them to corners, doors, and other important landscape features, stopping them at intersections, and more.

  2. Medical Alert- this includes alerts to various illnesses and conditions such as (but not limited to) severe allergens, gluten allergies and sensitivities, blood sugar swings caused by diabetes, high heart rate or blood pressure, migraines, seizures, and more. Their tasks regarding these disabilities might be to alert their human to a change in their condition so they can take medication, lead their handler from the area, retrieve medication, and more.

  3. Mobility- dogs have flexible spines and are not built to carry people, like horses. However within certain specification dogs can assist people by providing support, stability, grounding, and bracing. These specifications generally include the dog being a certain percentage of their handler's height and weight as well as having had radiographs done to confirm their growth plates are closed and the dog has no underlying physical conditions such as hip dysplasia. Mobility isn't solely about weight bearing and bracing tasks, other mobility tasks can include retrieving things for their owner (water bottle from the fridge, groceries, etc), opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, and more.

  4. Hearing Assistance- these dogs are trained to alert hearing impaired individuals. Some of their tasks might be to alert their handler to a fire alarm, knock at the door, phone call, and more.

  5. Psychiatric- these dogs help alert their owner to changes in their mental state. Dogs can be used to calm their handler through Deep Pressure Therapy, interruption of self-harm, grounding, blocking (standing in front or behind their handler to give them slightly more physical room), limited guidework (help their handler find the nearest exit), fetch help, and more. Psychiatric Service Dogs are highly trained animals who have specific tasks to do. While they do provide comfort to their handler most have been trained to recognize when their handler's disability is going to effect them, often before their handler even realizes. Deep Pressure Therapy is more than the dog laying on top of them, it is the dog recognizing their handlers signs, understanding that they should apply Deep Pressure Therapy, encouraging their handler to prepare to receive it, and then applying it. For individuals who need a psychiatric Service Dog it can be very triggering for the dog to be noticed and it can be a careful line to walk whether the tasks the dog performs outweigh the attention Service Dogs draw.

  • Service Dogs cannot be "certified". There is no such thing as a Service Dog certification in a legally binding way. Those certifications and cards you can buy off the internet mean nothing and, worse, they are confusing. When people repeatedly see those cards they begin to think legitimate teams need them. This can cause access problems for the team. There are training organizations that give certificates and the like to dogs that pass their programs, but those are very different from the "certifications" which cannot be legally binding. Any "service dog registry" is just a scam for money. No one can ask for a Service Dog's ID or certification in order to prove they are a Service Dog (there are a few slight exceptions regarding psychiatric dogs under federal aviation and federal housing laws, but I am referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws which govern most instances). There are tests that assess a dog's readiness for Public Access work including the basic Canine Good Citizen, the Advanced Canine Good Citizen, the Urban Good Citizen (AKC's closest simulation of the true Public Access test), and the Public Access Test designed to assess how your ready your dog is for Public Access work. A Service Dog does not have to pass any of these to be considered a SD.

  • Service Dogs do not need to be trained through a SD training organization, though most Guide Dogs are. A SD does not need to be professionally trained at all. The ADA allows for owners to self-train. The main reason for this stipulation is that often disabled individuals are already low-income and requiring a SD be professionally trained creates an undue burden on the individual.

  • When working in a public space that is not typically accessible to dogs (referred to in the Service Dog community as Public Access) business employees, managers, and owners have the right to ask two questions. 1) Is that a Service Dog? 2) What are the dog's tasks. If the answer is: No to the first question, the team can be asked to leave and only have the handler return without the dog. If the answer to the second question is: I don't know, they're not task trained, they provide me comfort, or anything other than listing a category of trained tasks (defined above) then the team can be asked to leave and only return without the dog. Please note that I specify that the staff, manager, or owner of the business are allowed to ask these questions, the public is not. If you suspect a service dog is a fake then by law you should bring the issue to the attention of the staff of the establishment.

  • If a dog is not under the owner's control, disruptive, or not potty trained businesses may ask a Service Dog team to leave and return without the dog.

  • Individuals might work more than one Service Dog, this is allowable under ADA guidelines. A common instance of this is when you are training a new Service Dog in Training (SDiT) to replace your older retiring SD. However, other instances include having a small breed that does medical alert and psych tasks and a larger breed that provides mobility assistance.

  • Not every Service Dog works outside the house. Some people primarily need assistance inside their house. Just because a SD doesn't do Public Access doesn't make them less of a SD.

  • It varies by state whether Service Dogs in Training get Public Access rights. There are some states that have no restrictions, some that require the dog to be part of a program or trained professionally to have PA, and some that do not have PA rights at all. In Washington, SDiT do not have PA rights, though individuals may discuss exceptions with individual business owners.

  • When state and federal laws regarding SDs effect, generally the broader and more permissive law is the one that takes precedent.

  • SDs do not need to wear identifying gear, though it does help if Public Access questions arise. There are times when it is too hot, the handler was just running a quick errand and forgot the dog's vest, or so many other reasons why a dog might work unvested. Many handlers find the vest as a useful signal to let their dog know it's time to work. Vest comes off it's time to let their dog be a dog. But that is not always the case.

  • Unless a SD is actively tasking, leash laws do apply.

  • It is at an owner's discretion when a dog moves from SDiT to SD status, but the dog must be completely non-disruptive and task trained to have PA rights.

  • A Service Dog can be any breed, but most typical are the "Fab 4" Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, and Collies (Smooth or Rough).


Please check the ADA site for more information on Service Dogs. Though I have tried to be thorough there are many nuances about Service Dogs that I'm certain I've forgotten.


What do you do as the general public if you see a Service Dog team?

Ignore the dog and handler. Don't bring attention to them. Don't a